The Emerging Trend of Mindfulness in Education

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit: University of Oregon Health Center

by Annette Konoske-Graf

When I used to teach ninth and tenth grade, I kept a big poster at the front of the classroom that read, “Act, Don’t React.” I was a 21-year-old novice, so the sign was more wishful thinking than a reflection of some powerful conviction I taught my students.

“Act, Don’t React”

Still, even then, I knew there was something to be said for that kind of self-awareness in the classroom. I didn’t quite know how to teach it, or even how to embody it. But I knew that my students could learn more if they could recognize their stress and control their breathing.

Honestly, as a teacher, I could have taught more if I had done the same.

According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, mindfulness means, “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.” This non-judgmental awareness has been shown to have positive physical, social, and psychological effects—from improved concentration and increased empathy, to lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety.

Today, more and more research points to mindfulness as a lever to improve student achievement. According to the Association for Mindfulness in Education, mindfulness can increase students’ emotional regulation, social skills, self-esteem, and organizational capacities. A study published this month in Australia—one of the largest studies of mindfulness in schools to date—found that students learning mindfulness techniques improved both their academic and social aptitudes.

“…mindfulness can increase students’ emotional regulation, social skills, self-esteem, and organizational capacities.”

Mindfulness training could be particularly beneficial for our most high-need students, too many of who have experienced traumatic events. The rates are staggering: Four of every 10 children in American say they experienced a physical assault during the past year. Fifty-eight percent of all children in America have either witnessed or been a victim of crime during that same time period.

Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans. Though more research is required, students who have experienced trauma could similarly benefit from mindfulness training. If prisons and hospitals are embracing mindfulness as a healing mechanism, so too should schools.

Photo Credit: Breathe for Change

The benefits of mindfulness don’t stop with students. A recent study out of the University of Virginia suggests that teachers who regularly use mindfulness strategies are more emotionally supportive of their students. This kind of empathy is a trait shared by some of the country’s most effective teachers. Groups like Breathe for Change and CARE for Teachers are endeavoring to provide teachers with the skills teachers need to reduce their stress and thrive, hopefully contributing to higher teacher retention rates.

Granted, it’s hard for school districts and school leaders to prioritize what some consider a fad. The general public still struggles to identify a consensus definition of mindfulness. And mindfulness is also proving to be profitable industry—from all-inclusive retreats to frameable Pinterest quotes (“Feelings are just visitors, they come and go,” or “Rule your mind or it will rule you”). These kinds of exclusive sanctuaries and kitsch items don’t speak to the true value of mindfulness, which doesn’t require a beachfront setting or fancy accouterments.

Recognizing the intrinsic value of mindfulness, school districts and schools nationwide are infusing mindfulness strategies into curricula and teachers’ professional learning. Though participating schools are generally clustered in California and the Northeast, mindfulness is gaining traction. It still has hoops to jump, though—some school districts that have implemented a mindfulness curriculum have faced criticism from community members who believe that the practice is exclusively linked with Eastern religions, like Buddhism. This same line of reasoning would limit educators from teaching compassion, community-building, and altruism, lest they be reflections of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Though mindfulness has Buddhist roots, it isn’t owned by any one religion or philosophy. As Barry Bryce, the Editor-in-Chief of says, “Newton didn’t invent gravity, nor did the Buddha invent mindfulness.”

Thankfully, the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2015, broadens the capacities of states and school districts to address their students’ unique needs, possibly through programs that encourage mindfulness in the classroom. The law allows states and districts to dedicate funds to support a “well-rounded education” for students, which could incorporate social and emotional learning like mindfulness training. In the coming years, we’ll see if states and school districts choose to prioritize programs that could contribute to students’ emotional and academic success.

If I had taught my students how to be more mindful, maybe it would have been easier for them to see their own value, beyond the put-downs and trauma they experienced all too frequently. With mindfulness training, the “Act, Don’t React” sign could have become a lifelong motto.




Annette Konoske-Graf is a Policy Analyst with the K-12 Education team at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington D.C.

Neural Stress Reactivity Relates to Smoking Outcomes and Differentiates between Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (Kober et al. 2016)

SmokingNeural Stress Reactivity Relates to Smoking Outcomes and Differentiates between Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (Kober et al. 2016)

According to the World Health Organization, cigarette smoking contributes to 5.4 million deaths per year and is the most preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in developed nations. While smoking rates are decreasing overall, approximately 1 in 5 Americans still continue to smoke. There is promising evidence that 70% of smokers would like to quit, but less than 5% of unassisted attempts at quitting are actually successful.

Scientists have begun to focus on the mechanisms of stress and how it relates to smoking relapse. Previous research has established that acute moments of stress are linked to drug use and relapse and the magnitude of the stress response can actually predict relapse. Given this body of evidence, several smoking cessation treatments target stress as a potential mechanism for relapse prevention.

A previous study directly compares two such treatments for smoking cessation. The first is Freedom From Smoking (FFS), which is a form of a cognitive-behavioral treatment developed by the American Lung Association. This treatment uses cognitive strategies for coping with cravings and stress and is divided into stages of preparation, action, and maintenance. The FFS treatment that it is being compared to is Mindfulness Training (MT) for smoking, where the focus is to be present and accept both negative states and cravings, without the attempt to necessarily change their form or frequency.

There were two parts to the study. The first part of the study compared the two treatments and showed that Mindfulness Treatment (MT) was more effective at reducing smoking than Freedom From Smoking (FFS) during the treatment and at a 3-month follow-up. The second part of the study examined how stress reactivity in several brain regions related to smoking outcomes between the two types of interventions. To test this, a small subset of participants from the first part of the study (N=23) read a script of a personalized stress-inducing or neutral/relaxing scenario in an fMRI immediately after completing their treatment, and then repeated the tasks again 3 months later. Perceived stress and cravings were also assessed throughout the study.

Participant in fMRI scanner

Both groups showed neural activity in similar brain regions to the stress-inducing scenario, including the amygdala, mid-insula, and hippocampal regions. There were no significant differences of neural activity in the neutral/relaxing scenarios. Additionally, both groups showed that neural activity during these stressful scenarios had a negative correlation to smoking reduction. In other words, the greater their brain activity responded to stress, the less likely they were to have reduced their smoking throughout the study.

However, for the stress-inducing tasks, the Freedom From Smoking group showed greater stress reactivity in these same neural regions. These findings, coupled with the results that the Mindfulness Training group had a greater reduction in smoking, provide evidence that reducing stress reactivity at the neural level may be one of the primary mechanisms that make Mindfulness Training more effective for smoking cessation.

Prefrontal Cortex of the Human Brain
Prefrontal Cortex of the Human Brain

There are notable neurological differences between the two treatment options. For instance, the Freedom From Smoking intervention, which is a cognitive-behavioral therapy, activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which stress and forms of psychopathology, like addiction, can compromise its functioning. Conversely, Mindfulness Training, which relies on acceptance and being present, does not rely on the same prefrontal cortex and therefore might be more appropriate for clinical populations who deal with both stress and addiction.

This study is the first to provide evidence to this model linking stress reactivity at the neural level to reduction of smoking in mindfulness treatments. This adds to an existing body of mindfulness research on stress reactivity in the brain and might provide further evidence for the clinical application for mindfulness-based interventions.